school trips

I spent the last week on a school trip in London with 20 grade 9 and 10 students and two other teachers. It's my third time doing the trip and the second time with the same team of teachers.

The entire middle years programme has a trip week. Grades 6-8 have fixed trips every year, and 9-10 have language trips, alternating between trips to England and France/Spain every other year. It's a good system. This year, about 2/3 of the students went on the trips, and the ones who didn't had a week of School Without Walls, doing things in Helsinki.

I really enjoy these trips, and not just for the chance to return to one of the great cities in the world, a place where my wife and I lived just after getting married and where two of our sons were born. I also love the chance for students to see and experience a new culture, not just the attractions I take them to. I love allowing students to see the school stuff we do in a totally authentic environment. I love the chance for students to try out being on their own . I love the camaraderie that comes out between students and staff.

Here's a Google Map I made for the trip. In planning, I wanted us to be busy but have lots of free time, where students could choose what to do within a limited space. The  museums work very well for that, as well as specific spaces like Covent Garden. I also made sure that we were out in the evenings rather than sitting around the hostel getting all wired up. We also walked a lot.

I saw lots of student groups taking notes and working on handouts, but we did none of that. Instead, we set them loose and had quick debriefs afterward. This was especially important after the more emotionally intense activities, like the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum and the plays (War Horse and Billy Elliot).

Some quick thoughts about what I picked up as a teacher on this trip:
  • Spending five days in the presence of teaching colleagues told me how little time we spend together during the year. Both of my fellow travellers are excellent teachers, and we had excellent conversations about teaching, learning and our world views generally.
  • Kids were genuinely interested to see the connections made between their curriculum and the stuff we saw. For instance, in the Tate Modern, we saw some examples of surreal art, which personally does nothing for me. However, the kids got very excited because they studied that in grade 9 art. Same with the Varieties of English exhibit at the British Library: we did a unit on the history and development of the language earlier this year and the grade 10s showed real enthusiasm for what they saw, feeling like experts.
  • At the hostel, there were many student groups, and it was interesting to watch teachers try to manage their kids in the dining hall. Basically, sitting at a table away from students and shouting at them is less effective, being organized and interacting with the kids works better. Huh.
  • We had no  discipline issues. There are several reasons for this, starting with clearly defined rules with specific consequences of not following those rules and staff members with a reputation for following through. But more significantly, I take the tack of being honest with them about the sacrifice I make to organize the trip and be away from my family for a week. I also explain to them the risks I am taking by taking them to London and giving them a high degree of freedom, and the stress involved in certain activities, mostly moving through the Underground. I find that they respond well to this. I have taught almost all of these students, and so we have a personal relationship.
  • There is something exciting about seeing how kids are on their own. Some stuck with the herd; others tried new things. I had a pair of boys who insisted on walking around the block and exploring at every stop. It was great to hear their observations. Another set of boys decided not to go shopping at all, instead wandering around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park for two hours. Again, they had a minor adventure and the more mercantile students were somewhat jealous.

It was a great trip (partially because of the great weather) and I look forward to doing it again in 2013.